$2M NSF project to use game to engage rural Maine students in computer science, math

Using a popular video game to immerse rural Maine students in computer science and math concepts is the focus of a three-year, $2 million research project being led by University of Maine researchers.

Bruce Segee, the Henry R. and Grace V. Butler Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UMaine, is leading the project that aims to advance efforts of the National Science Foundation’s Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers program to better understand and promote practices to increase the likelihood that students will gain important skills and ultimately pursue careers in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM).

NSF awarded $1,999,695 for the researchers to develop and utilize an educational curriculum for rural middle school children that would engage them with programming, spatial reasoning and problem-solving skills by using Minecraft. The popular open-world game enables players to construct buildings and environments using cubes.

“The use of computer games as a mechanism for teaching computer science concepts while also improving the effectiveness of the core curriculum is incredibly exciting,” says Segee, who also is the director of the Advanced Computing Group for the University of Maine System. “We believe that we will see an improvement in student learning across multiple areas.”

“Creating a Virtual Infrastructure for Engaging Rural Youth in STEM Disciplines through Computer Science” represents a collaboration with several Maine middle schools as well as ThoughtSTEM, a San Diego-based computer science education organization.

The researchers — Segee and co-principal investigators Craig Mason, a UMaine professor of education, and Stephen Foster, CEO and co-founder of ThoughtSTEM — will develop a curriculum to motivate and teach fifth- to eighth-graders using LearnToMod for Minecraft. LearnToMod is a browser-based software add-on created by ThoughtSTEM that teaches users the basics of programming to create tricks and tools that can be used within Minecraft.

The project will look at how using the game both in school and in after-school settings offered through University of Maine Cooperative Extension 4-H influences students’ knowledge of math and programming, their interest in STEM careers, and standardized test scores.

Starting in 2016, LearnToMod and the accompanying curriculum will be piloted with about 80 4-H participants and 80 in-school participants. Throughout the study, approximately 1,000 students in urban and rural areas will become involved, according to the researchers.

The project also will study specific school characteristics such as socioeconomic status, access to resources and existing STEM programs. The researchers will use the variables as predictors of change in teacher behavior, such as the incorporation of computer science into STEM areas.

The analyses will focus on student and teacher behaviors, as well as school-level characteristics or demographics, to analyze questions such as “What types of computer programming activities or skills are associated with the greatest change specifically in low-versus-high-income schools?”

In addition to UMaine education and computer science researchers, UMaine Extension 4-H and ThoughtSTEM, other partners are the Network Maine, the Maine Department of Education’s Maine Learning Technology Initiative (MLTI), and several K-12 schools around the state.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747